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Welcome to the Desert of the Real!
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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (2002) 385-389



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Welcome to the Desert of the Real!

Slavoj Zizek


The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lives in a real world, while all the people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show. The most recent example of this is Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998), with Jim Carrey playing the small-town clerk who gradually discovers the truth that he is the hero of a twenty-four-hour permanent TV show: his hometown is constructed on a gigantic studio set, with cameras following him around the clock. Among its predecessors, it is worth mentioning Philip Dick's Time Out of Joint (1959), in which a hero living a modest daily life in a small idyllic Californian city of the late 1950s gradually realizes that the whole town is a fake staged to keep him satisfied. The underlying experience of Time Out of Joint and of The Truman Show is that the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise is, in its very hyper-reality, in a way irreal, substanceless, deprived of the material inertia.

So it is not only that Hollywood stages a [End Page 385] semblance of real life deprived of the weight and inertia of materiality—in the late capitalist consumerist society, "real social life" itself somehow acquires the features of a staged fake, with our neighbors behaving in "real" life as stage actors and extras. Again, the ultimate truth of the capitalist utilitarian despiritualized universe is the dematerialization of the "real life" itself, its reversal into a spectral show. Among others, Christopher Isherwood gave expression to this unreality of the American daily life, exemplified in the motel room: "American motels are unreal! . . . they are deliberately designed to be unreal. . . . The Europeans hate us because we've retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate." Peter Sloterdijk's notion of the "sphere" is here literally realized, as the gigantic metal sphere that envelopes and isolates the entire city. Years ago, a series of science-fiction films like Zardoz or Logan's Run forecasted today's postmodern predicament by extending this fantasy to the community itself: the isolated group living an aseptic life in a secluded area longs for the experience of the real world of material decay.

The Wachowski brothers' hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero (played by Keanu Reeves) awakens into the "real reality," he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins—what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: "Welcome to the desert of the real." Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the "desert of the real"—to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions.

When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?

Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested—just [End Page 386] recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus...